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Steven Wilson Interview (Bonus Material)

February 11, 2009
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Here''s more of my interview with Steven Wilson about his solo CD, Insurgentes.

Did you master Insurgentes yourself, or was it mastered elsewhere?
The surround mix I mastered myself, but the stereo [version] was mastered at Masterdisk in New York by Andy VanDette. I always say that when you mix an album properly, there''s very little to be done in terms of mastering. And again, because I know that room so much, there''s actually very little to do in terms of mastering once the album is mixed. A little bit of limiting to get the volume up a touch; maybe a touch more sparkle at the top end, 14 or 15 kHz. Very little limiting goes on. Sometimes when too much mastering goes on, it makes the music sound worse, not better, which I''ve discovered to my cost.

Sometimes they have some incredible processor—a Manley—or some other sort of great analog device that they send it through.
That''s right. Sometimes you can get some of that warmth back, some of that valve-y warmth back. But on this album, I hired [rented] a Neve summing amp. So rather than mixing straight off the digital bus, which I have done in the past, I tried to get a little bit of that analog warmth back by creating stems out of the computer, like a stem of drums, a stem of guitars, and routing that through the Neve summing amp, and then recording it back in at high resolution into the computer. And that seems to put a little of the analog warmth back in that maybe gets taken out from the digital domain.

So you recorded the vocals and some of the guitars in your space?
I did, yes.

Did you use any guitar amp plug-ins?
I did. Like I said, it''s about fifty-fifty. When I record in my own studio, I don''t use amps at all. I literally have one room. I don''t have anywhere to stick my amp that wouldn''t take my head off if I suddenly started playing in that room. So 50 percent would be through plug-ins and also through the Line 6 POD, external POD, and 50 percent would be tracking through actual amps over in Florida.

Which plug-ins do you use for the guitar amp sounds?
I use the [Line 6] Amp Farm plug-in, I use the [Tech-21] Sans Amp plug-in. I haven''t experimented with [Native Instruments] Guitar Rig yet, but I think the problem with that is that it doesn''t run on TDM. It doesn''t run on the Pro Tools; it only runs in native Logic.

And you have a problem with the latency, going native?
I really cannot work with latency. The reason I cannot work with latency is that so many of my sounds that I''m playing with are being processed in real time through plug-ins. Obviously that does affect the way you play. I have to be hearing the sound as it''s going through the plug-in. So latency for me is a nonstarter. I''m using Amp Farm and Sans Amp, both of which run on the TDM platform. I''m also using a lot of lo-fi effects, on this record particularly. [Like] Bitcrusher, reducing the bit rate down to 2-bit or 3-bit, and you get that crunchy kind of Trent Reznor thing. I love that s--t. That''s definitely a trick I use a lot, too.

Do you have any problems in your studio with noise coming in from the outside?
Not really. My parents live in a pretty quiet street in a town outside London. I''m sure there are a few unexpected sounds—if you solo the tracks you might hear something—but luckily there''s generally very little external noise that creeps in.

I know you mentioned that you did a lot of the ethereal, textured stuff with multiple guitar layering. Did you use any synths and samplers on this CD?
A little bit, yeah. I''m really not that familiar with synthesizers and programming synthesizers, so I tend to kind of use the plug-ins in an idiot savant way. I just load up things and twiddle buttons, and sometimes create interesting sounds in that way. But I have to say that I''m much more at home creating textures with guitars. And with the plug-ins now, you can do so much. A lot of sounds that people would think are keyboards are guitars. If I use keyboards, I tend to use more-organic sounds. So for example, there''s a Fender Rhodes on one track, a plug-in version. There''s a lot of mellotron—virtual mellotron sounds. I love those old organic sounds, Hammond organ. Those are the kind of sounds, again, I fell in love with as a kid on those old ''70s records. So to have the kind of plug-in versions which to me sound fantastically faithful is fantastic. I guess I tend to stick with those when it comes to the more keyboard side of things.

Talk more about the musical comparisons between Insurgentes and Porcupine Tree.
For many years, I''ve said that Porcupine Tree is not a band you can categorize easily. But in a way, Porcupine Tree is a band that''s in the tradition of progressive rock music. The songs are long, there are conceptual lyrics, the tracks tend to have [complex] time signatures, and the playing is quite technical sometimes, so it''s kind of in the tradition of progressive music. But this album, not really. There''s nothing that complicated on it musically, there''s nothing very show-off-y about it. It still has that sense of journey and that sense of movement and narrative across the album. But I think it moves through so many different styles, it almost makes it beyond classification. At least I hope so. You know what? It''s one of those things that makes an album really hard to sell and to market. It''s not necessarily the greatest attribute from a commercial point of view, but from an artistic point of view, for me, it would be the greatest compliment if someone said, “You know, your album is beyond classification.”

So you didn''t go into it thinking you''d make it sound like a particular genre; you just said, “I''m going to do my music and wherever it comes out, it comes out.” Is that right?
Well, in a sense, I do do that. But like every musician, I get inspired by things I hear. So some days I do go into the studio and say, “You know what? I really want to make a song in the style of the Cure today,” or Joy Division, or the Cocteau Twins, or King Crimson. And I do do that, but here''s the thing: I think you get to a point—at least I hope this is the case—you get to a point in your musical evolution, as an individual, where your personality is established to a point where you can be inspired by other music. But once it''s been filtered through you, it actually doesn''t sound like that. You can trace it back to that in terms of its origins. In the same way that Led Zeppelin were inspired by Willie Dixon and those old blues players. It didn''t sound like Willie Dixon; it sounded like Led Zeppelin. But you can trace it back. And I like to think that it''s somewhere I''ve arrived now. I''ve been making records for close to 20 years. And I like to think that I can be quite inspired by something. But by the time that it''s been filtered through my personality, it doesn''t sound like anyone else but me.

You had an orchestra on parts of Insurgentes?
Yeah. On “Salvaging,” there''s that whole section in the middle where it breaks down into that beautiful orchestral section. And on some of those other tracks, I got them to play completely atonal wall-of-noise stuff. At the end of “Salvaging” they''re doing it. And also on the first track on the bonus disc called “Rubicon,” there are some sections where the orchestra is playing. Basically, I would say to them, “Pick a note and don''t take any notice to what the other people around you are playing; just stick to that note.” When you have like 25 or 30 string players, you get a wonderful cacophony of sound. They''ve all picked a different note.

Everyone gets their own note [laughs].
They all get their own note, and you get this incredible kind of atonal, chordal cluster. I love that s--t. That comes back to my love of experimental avant-garde, people like Stockhausen and John Cage, those guys who would experiment with those sort of systems for creating music. You don''t write music, but what you do is you write systems for making music. I love doing that. That''s a very kind of nonmusician-y thing to do. You''re not writing music. You''re coming up with an idea, and you''re using musicians to realize that idea. So I did some of that on this record, too, and that was great fun. And again, I''m not sure that''s something I would have done in the context of a band, where everyone would have been looking at me like I was insane. I mean, they were doing that anyway, but at least it wasn''t other members of my band; it was just the string players themselves looking at me like I was insane.

You mentioned that you used another guitar player, and I know you had a koto player as well.
Yeah, we got Michiyo Yagi to play koto on the final track. There''s the acoustic guitar player Sand Snowman, and there''s also a fantastic jazz guitar player [Mike Outram] that I used on the “No Twilight” track to do those very McLaughlin-esque guitar figures, because that''s way beyond my ability. I definitely wanted that kind of “sheets of sound”—John McLaughlin, John Coltrane kind of jazz but very atonal and really burning. A burning guitar sound. Luckily, I found a perfect musician for that playing with a jazz saxophonist friend of mine, Theo Travis, who''s also on the record playing flute. And he was in his band. I thought he was phenomenal. He had those jazz chops, but he also had that sense of abandon that great rock musicians have when they''re really on a roll.

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